I am very excited about going to Vienna. On a whim, before I left Melbourne, I wrote to the father of the family I au-paired for back in the 80s and, to my surprise, he replied by email. Sadly his wife died in 2009 but he still lives at the same address and his daughters, one of whom is married with children and one of whom is engaged, are both living in Vienna. I was in two minds whether to get in touch; looking after those girls wasn’t the easiest of gigs. But, thirty-odd years later, I’ve rather forgotten about the homesickness, the sometimes stifling routine and general stuffiness of a titled Viennese family and am left with a sense of gratitude that I had the experience – horsehair mattress, dumpling soup, tweedy relatives with leather-patched jackets and all. I lived pretty centrally in the 10th district where all the embassies are situated and was right near the Stadt Park with its statues of Strauss, Schubert and other well-known artists. I got a bit bored endlessly playing catch or Mr. Wolf with the children, but as far as playgrounds go, this was a pretty glamorous and stylish one.
As I have written before, the family also introduced me to opera and I grew to love it. I would rush off after giving the children their tea and bath and get a standing place for just 12 Austrian Schillings. So, with just one night in this venerable city, I am treating myself to a good seat in the stalls at the Opera House. I will be seeing Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, an opera that is somewhere between a fairy tale and a folk tale. As the name suggests, Janacek was Czech and his work incorporates Moravian folk music and weaves in themes on man’s connection with nature, love, the cyclical nature of life and death and even has a bit of a socialist agenda. The Cunning Little Vixen has got all the ingredients you might expect: a forester, the forester’s buxom wife, a poacher, a cast of woodland animals including the two foxes and more. To quote from the Welsh National Opera:
“The score contains some of Janáček’s most enchanting music. Dream sequences, the wedding march of the foxes, and the magnificent finale of ‘When evening arrives’ paint a glorious picture of the countryside Janáček loved so much.”
There’s something magical and majestic about the Vienna Opera House. From what I recall, it’s all gold, gilt, splendour and sumptuousness with glittering lights and sweeping staircases. It belongs to a bygone era of men in top hats and ladies in fine dresses, hats and gloves, their horse and carriage waiting outside.
Talking of a bygone era, another thing on my list for my 23-hour stop in Vienna is to visit the Palais Ephrussi, one of the properties originally owned by the Ephrussi family, a wealthy Jewish banking dynasty who made their money as grain merchants in Odessa. The story of their demise at the hands of the Nazis and the fate of a family collection of 264 netsuke ( intricately carved miniature Japanese figures made of ivory), is captured in Edmund de Waal’s brilliant family memoir The Hare with the Amber Eyes (winner of the 2010 Costa Biography Award). After the war in 1945 one of the Ephrussi family returned to find the Palais Ephrussi severely damaged but their maid, Anna, had managed to save the netsuke from the Gestapo. It’s a wonderful story and told with such grace, humility and sensitivity. The building is situated opposite the Votivkirche (church) on the Ringstrasse with its imposing, imperial-style showy buildings. The Ephrussi Palace building is now owned by Austrian Casinos so is still clearly in the business of making money!